It is said the Stanley Cup is the hardest championship to win in all of sport, a two-month marathon filled with blood, sweat and tears.
Both Pittsburgh Penguins management and its players learned as much last summer, first by suffering a hard-fought six-game loss to Detroit in the NHL championship.
Then, with seven free agents set to test the open market, general manager Ray Shero and assistant Chuck Fletcher faced another playoff-like challenge: rebuild a Cup contender with little flexibility under the league's $56.7-million US salary cap.
"It was a difficult summer because our team was not that far away last June," Fletcher told CBCSports.ca, referring to the final series against the Red Wings. "We had a pretty good core of players and a young group of talented players that we expected would get better with age and from the experience of having gone to the Stanley Cup final."
With nearly $30 million tied up in star forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, defencemen Sergei Gonchar and Ryan Whitney, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and up-and-comers Jordan Staal and Kris Letang, Fletcher and Shero went to work.
On July 3, one day after star forward Marian Hossa signed a one-year deal with Detroit, right-winger Miro Satan and left-winger Ruslan Fedotenko were brought aboard for one year at a combined cost of $5.75 million to replace Hossa and Ryan Malone.
Two days later, former Vancouver Canuck Matt Cooke was added for $1.2 million to offset the loss of gritty forwards Gary Roberts and Jarkko Ruutu. Following a couple of depth moves, Pittsburgh opened the season with a payroll near $56 million.
Winger Adam Hall also bolted for the Tampa Bay Lightning while defenceman Mark Eaton, a fixture on the Penguins blue-line in this year's post-season, didn't play a minute during last year's playoff run.
"You're not able to compete for every player in the marketplace," said the 41-year-old Fletcher, "so we looked at our needs and our salary cap situation and [Fedotenko, Satan and Cooke] were some of the better fits available. We also had to look at what we had internally.
"We knew Crosby and Malkin had room to grow, that Jordan Staal was going to get better, that players like [centre] Tyler Kennedy and [defenceman] Kris Letang were certainly poised to take on bigger roles. And even a young player like [blue-liner] Alex Goligoski was looking for potential ice time."
But despite all that talent, the Penguins failed to carry the momentum from last year's playoff run into this season and managed only five wins in their first 11 starts under head coach Michel Therrien.
"We had a short summer, had some holes to fill [on the roster] and started the season in Europe so we had a few things we had to overcome going into the season," Fletcher said.
Pittsburgh opened the pre-season minus the injured Whitney, who had arthroscopic surgery on his left foot in the summer, and then lost Gonchar for four to six months after he dislocated his left shoulder. Letang, 22, made big strides in their absence after being a healthy scratch in Game 6 of last year's Cup final.
Shortly after Whitney's return in late December, the Penguins lost six of seven and saw their record fall to 19-17-4. Not much changed over the next seven weeks as Gonchar returned on Feb. 14 to a Pittsburgh outfit that stood in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings at 27-24-5.
'There's always a leap of faith in anything you do' —Chuck Fletcher, Penguins assistant general manager
By now, rumours of Therrien's potential firing and calls for management to address the team's lack of secondary scoring were in full swing. The next day, Therrien was let go and replaced by Dan Bylsma, a former NHL right-winger but a relatively unknown and untested coach.
He guided the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League to a 35-16-1-2 record this season as head coach and teamed with former bench boss Todd Richards to win 98 games the previous two seasons.
"There's always a leap of faith in anything you do, whether it's a trade or when you hire people," said Fletcher of Bylsma's promotion to the NHL at age 38. "We knew Dan well. The club in Wilkes-Barre was very successful in those seasons [under Bylsma and Richards] and our young players all got better."
Proven winners on board
Seeking an upgrade up front, Pittsburgh dealt Whitney to Anaheim on Feb. 26 for 29-year-old left-winger Chris Kunitz, who had won a Cup with the Ducks in 2007 and had been flourishing on a line with centre Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
The overhaul was completed at the March 4 trade deadline when the Penguins acquired veteran forward Bill Guerin from the New York Islanders and claimed right-winger Craig Adams off waivers from Chicago. Both have Cup titles on their resume — Guerin with New Jersey in 1995 and Adams with Carolina in 2006.
"I think the addition of Kunitz, Guerin and Adams has helped in the sense that all three have had a lot of playoff experience and won Stanley Cups," Fletcher said. "But don't forget the entire team is now more experienced, not only on the basis of going to the finals last year but also going through the adversity we faced this season."
Bylsma guided the Penguins to an 18-3-4 mark in the regular season, which was good enough to secure the fourth seed in the East and home-ice advantage in a first-round playoff series against Philadelphia, which was ousted in six games.
Pittsburgh then posted series victories over Washington and Carolina before tangling with Detroit.
Fletcher believes Bylsma's positive attitude, passion for hockey and belief in his ability to coach went a long way towards achieving that goal, not to mention the efforts of assistant coaches Tom Fitzgerald and Mike Yeo.
"There's just been a big effort made on behalf of the coaches to get the players to buy in," said Fletcher. "The system is essentially the same from what we played all year [under Therrien], though we're probably a little bit more aggressive in some areas of the ice than we were before.
"I think he [Bylsma] inspires people just with his presence and his ability to communicate with them. He's got a plan and he's prepared. When you're prepared and have a great attitude good things tend to happen and so far it's gone well."
Hoisting the first Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh since 1992 on Friday night made it that much more sweet.